The Best Paint Strippers for Home Projects

Easily remove past-its-prime paint with these high-performing paint strippers.

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The Best Paint Strippers According to DIYers—and How to Use Them

Photo: istockphoto.com

Paint prep is a necessary but sometimes tedious step. Some types of paint prep are easier than others. On a piece of furniture with only a few isolated peeling patches, you can simply scrape, sand, and prime before repainting. But if you’re tackling a project that has already been painted several times—and likely shows widespread chipping, cracking, or blistering—you’ll need to remove the existing finish entirely before pressing on with your project.

You could do this manually with a hand sander and a whole lot of elbow grease (not an option with lead-based paint). Or you can use a paint stripper, which will take care of the task at hand in far less time and with far less effort on your part.

Before you set out to purchase a paint stripper for your project, know that not all are suitable for all types of paint and surfaces, and some include harsh chemical ingredients that require you to take special safety precautions. Keep reading to learn about what paint strippers are made of and how to use them safely, as well as to see our top picks:

  1. BEST OVERALL: Smart Strip Advanced Paint Remover
  2. SAFETY PICK: Safe ‘n Easy Citrus Paint & Varnish Remover Gel
  3. FASTEST WORKING: Sunnyside Corporation 65664 Hi-Speed Ready-Strip 
  4. BEST FOR WOOD: D Super Remover Paint Stripper
  5. BEST FOR METAL: MAX Strip All Purpose Remover 22 oz
  6. BEST FOR CONCRETE: Motsenbocker’s Lift Off Spray Paint Graffiti Remover

What to Consider When Choosing the Best Paint Stripper

When shopping for a paint stripper, it’s crucial to consider a few factors, including the type of paint stripper, the materials that it works with, and how safe it is to use. Ahead, learn about these and other important characteristics of paint strippers.

VOCs

Like the paint, varnishes, and lacquers they remove, paint strippers can put off VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that can be harmful to breathe in and cause nose, throat, and eye irritation. While VOCs are less of a concern when working outdoors, they can be harmful when working indoors, especially if there is limited ventilation.

Strippers with high VOCs typically use harsh chemicals in their formula. If planning to work indoors, look for a paint stripper that does not use chemicals such as methylene chloride that produce high VOCs.

Type

There are four main types of paint strippers that function in unique ways and contain varying levels of VOC content.

  • Solvent: The most versatile paint strippers, solvent products rely on toxic chemicals to loosen the bond between paint and surface. While some have methylene chloride, which has a high VOC content, others include a combo of alcohol, toluene, and methanol. High-VOC products generally have smellier fumes and are more of a health hazard than other strippers.
  • Caustic: These strippers, with an active ingredient of lye (i.e., sodium hydroxide), partially converts dried paint into soap, causing it to loosen from the surface. Since caustic strippers are alkaline (high pH), the stripped surface must be neutralized (returned to a pH of 7) by wiping it down with a water and vinegar solution.
  • Biochemical: These safer alternatives to solvent and caustic strippers are usually made with a combination of a plant-based solvent such as terpenes and the organic compound N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP). Though lower in VOCs and fumes, NMP can still irritate the skin and adversely affect the respiratory and reproductive systems.
  • Zero-VOC: If you’re concerned about using the strippers listed above, consider VOC-free paint removers made without methylene chloride, lye, or NMP. These virtually odorless, though pricier products are made with naturally occurring solvents like benzyl alcohol.

Surface Material

Different types of paint strippers perform better on certain surfaces. Choose the paint stripper that’s best suited for the intended surface application:

  • Solvent: These paint removers effectively strip paint as well as epoxy and polyurethane from wood, masonry, and metal surfaces without discoloration.
  • Caustic: This type of paint stripper is ineffective on epoxy and polyurethane; they’re best for removing oil-based paint on masonry surfaces, such as concrete floors and brick fireplace surrounds. While they remove water- and oil-based paint from some metals and wood, caustic strippers can erode the likes of aluminum and blacken such hardwoods as maple (this darkness can be removed with wood bleach).
  • Biochemical: These paint removers are ineffective when applied to epoxy and polyurethane but can remove water- or oil-based paint from masonry, metal, and wood.
  • Zero-VOC: These paint strippers can break down the resins of water- and oil-based paint to loosen it from metal, masonry, and, to an extent, wood. They’re less effective at removing epoxy and polyurethane.

Safety

While some paint strippers are less hazardous than others, all types must be applied with protective equipment. Be sure to use the following protective gear when handling whichever type you choose:

  • Solvent: Directly inhaling the fumes of solvent strippers can damage the brain or reproductive system, so always wear a respirator in addition to safety glasses, skin-covering clothing, and gloves made of a chemical-resistant material like butyl.
  • Caustic: These strippers can irritate the eyes, skin, and lungs if touched or inhaled. However, they’re considered safer and lower in VOCs than solvent strippers. A respirator, safety glasses, skin-covering clothing, and chemical-resistant gloves are still recommended when working with them.
  • Biochemical: This type of paint stripper is safer than caustic products. However, a respirator, chemical-resistant gloves, and skin-covering clothing should still be worn when handling them.
  • Low-VOC: While low-VOC paint strippers are the safest type available, direct exposure can still irritate the lungs or redden the skin, so a respirator and safety gloves are still recommended.

If stripping old paint in homes built pre-1978, test with a lead paint test kit. If the test is positive, you must choose a paint stripper labeled for use on lead paint (these strippers may fall into any of the four categories of paint strippers above and usually come in a paste or gel form to trap lead particles and keep them from going airborne).

Application

When applying paint stripper, dip a disposable paint brush into the product to apply in the thickness recommended on the package instructions. Move the brush in short strokes in a single direction (on wood, move in the direction of the grain). If the product came with laminate paper squares for easier paint removal, adhere the squares to the wet stripper immediately after application.

  • Solvent: These strippers need only be applied in a thin layer (usually less than 1/8-inch) and stay on the surface briefly (often less than 15 minutes) before paint can be easily lifted off with a paint scraper. The stripped surface must then be washed with water or mineral spirits before repainting, but it won’t require a neutralizing agent.
  • Caustic: Caustic strippers must be applied in a 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch layer and require a dwell time of at least 30 minutes before paint can be scraped off.
  • Low-VOC: They usually require an application of 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch and dwell time of three to 24 hours before paint can be removed. Follow up with a rinse with water or mineral spirits (no neutralization needed).
  • Biochemical: They must be applied in a thick 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch layer and be left on the surface between three and four hours before paint can be removed with a scraper. While you will wash the stripped surface with water or mineral spirits, there’s no need to neutralize.

If the paint stripper requires a neutralizing step, use the solution recommended on the package (or a solution of equal parts vinegar and water), then test the pH of the stripped surface with pH paper to ensure it has a pH of 7. For paint strippers that don’t require neutralizing, wash the stripped surface with the cleaner recommended on the packaging (usually plain water or mineral spirits).

Tips for Working With Paint Remover

In addition to application tips for the different types listed above, follow these practices for safe and effective use of any paint stripper:

  • Strip paint outdoors whenever possible to maximize ventilation. If any individual parts of furniture can be removed, e.g., cabinet doors, take these parts outdoors to strip paint or varnish. If you must apply paint stripper indoors, place a fan behind you as you work and open a window on two opposite sides of the room for ventilation.
  • Lay a chemical-resistant tarp over the floor and any furniture you can’t move out of the room.
  • Let the paint stripper stay on the surface for the recommended dwell time on the package instructions.
  • Use a paint scraper or a drywall knife whose edge has been slightly dulled with a metal file to lift off the loosened paint (and any laminate paper squares) in a continuous motion and in a single direction (in the direction of the grain if stripping wood). Sweep the paint waste into a resealable plastic bag with the scraper.
  • If any paint remains trapped in the grooves of porous surfaces such as wood or masonry, gently scrub the surface with a plastic mesh scouring brush (or, if outdoors, rinse the surface with a power washer) to remove.
  • Let the surface dry completely; turn on portable fans in the room to speed up drying.
  • Discard the bag of paint waste at a local hazardous waste disposal site, which you can find by entering your zip code or address in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Information (RCRAInfo) search tool.
The Best Paint Strippers According to DIYers—and How to Use Them

Photo: istockphoto.com

Tips for Working with Any Type of Paint Stripper

In addition to the safety gear requirements mentioned above, follow these practices for safe and effective use of any paint stripper.

  • If stripping old paint in homes built pre-1978, test with a lead paint test kit. If the test is positive, you must choose a paint stripper labeled for use on lead paint (these strippers may fall into any of the four categories of paint strippers above and usually come in a paste or gel form to trap lead particles and keep them from going airborne).
  • Lay a chemical-resistant tarp over the floor and any furniture you can’t move out of the room.
  • Apply paint stripper outdoors whenever possible to maximize ventilation. If any individual parts of furniture can be removed, e.g., cabinet doors, take these parts outdoors to strip. If you must apply paint stripper indoors, place a fan behind you as you work and open a window on two opposite sides of the room for ventilation.
  • Dip a disposable paintbrush into the stripper to apply in the thickness recommended on the package instructions. Move the brush in short strokes in a single direction (on wood, move in the direction of the grain). If the product came with laminate paper squares for easier paint removal, adhere the squares to the wet stripper immediately after application.
  • Let the paint stripper stay on the surface for the recommended dwell time on the package instructions.
  • Use a paint scraper or a drywall knife whose edge has been slightly dulled with a metal file to lift off the loosened paint (and any laminate paper squares) in a continuous motion and in a single direction (in the direction of the grain if stripping wood). Sweep the paint waste into a re-sealable plastic bag with the scraper.
  • If any paint remains trapped in the grooves of porous surfaces such as wood or masonry, gently scrub the surface with a plastic mesh scouring brush (or, if outdoors, rinse the surface with a power washer) to remove.
  • If the paint stripper requires a neutralizing step, use the solution recommended on the package (or a solution of equal parts vinegar and water), then test the pH of the stripped surface with pH paper to ensure it has a pH of 7.
  • For paint strippers that don’t require neutralizing, wash the stripped surface with the cleaner recommended on the packaging (usually plain water or mineral spirits).
  • Let the surface dry completely; turn on portable fans in the room to speed up drying.
  • Discard the bag of paint waste at a local hazardous waste disposal site, which you can find by entering your zip code or address in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Information (RCRAInfo) search tool.

Our Top Picks

The list below narrows the field to some of the best paint strippers on the market. The products below remove paint quickly and work on a variety of different coatings and materials.

Best Overall

Best Paint Stripper

The methylene chloride- and NMP-free formula of this biodegradable paint stripper imparts no nasty fumes as it removes paint (even lead-based), varnish, and urethane from wood, metal, masonry, and other surfaces indoors and out.

The biodegradable paint remover can be applied by brush, roller, or sprayer. It’s successful at stripping new and decades-old paint coats from stone, metal, and other painted surfaces, all with ease.

Safety Pick

Best Paint Stripper

Not only is this paint and varnish remover biodegradable and free of dangerous chemicals such as methylene chloride and NMP, it also produces no harmful fumes or foul odors. In fact, it may even freshen the air with its pleasant citrus smell. It’s effective at removing 15 or more layers of latex and oil-based paint and varnish from wood, masonry, fiberglass, tile, porcelain, and glass.

To use, apply, allow the remover to set, then rinse off.  With its gel consistency, it will stick to vertical as well as horizontal surfaces. Safe ‘n Easy paint remover comes in a 1/2-gallon container, which covers about 20 square feet.

Fastest Working

Best Paint Stripper

This paint stripper starts working just 30 minutes after application, making it one of the fastest means of stripping paint from wood, plaster, concrete, brick, stone, and masonry. It removes up to three layers of water or oil-based paint and varnish and is applied with a sprayer, brush, or roller.

In addition to being fast-acting, Sunnyside ready-strip also produces low VOCs and uses no methylene chloride or other harsh chemicals, making it environmentally safe, leaving only a pleasant citrus aroma. Hi-Speed Ready-Strip is available in 1/2-gallon containers, enough to cover about 20 square feet, and quart-size spray bottles.

Best for Wood

Best Paint Stripper

This paint stripper’s ability to remove some of the most commonly used coatings for wood, including oil- and water-based paint, epoxies, varnishes, shellacs, and lacquers, makes it an ideal paint stripper for wood. This formula also includes no methylene chloride or NMP, which is safer for the user and the environment while also being gentler on wood. This makes it an ideal choice for stripping antique furniture.

It begins stripping paint just 15 minutes after application and will remove up to five layers. Apply by pouring the stripper onto the surface and use a scraper to remove. D Super remover paint stripper comes in 32-ounce or 1-gallon cans.

Best for Metal

Best Paint Stripper

The spray bottle packaging and fast-acting formula of this paint stripper from Max Strip make it a good paint stripper for metal. The stripper sprays on, making it ideal for removing paint from cars and other surfaces that may be scratched by a brush or scraper. The stripper also works quickly—in about 15 minutes—and is in a gel form, making it ideal for clinging to slick metal surfaces.

Max Strip produces no harsh fumes or odors and rinses away with water. In addition to paint, Max Strip also conveniently removes other materials that frequently end up on a car, including tree sap, sticker residue, and glues. It comes in 22-ounce bottles.

Best for Concrete

Best Paint Stripper

Removing paint that’s soaked into the porous surface of masonry can be a challenge. This paint remover works to break the molecular bonds in paint, making it capable of lifting spray paint, aerosol paint, enamel, and other paint types from porous concrete.

Unlike other strippers that liquify paint, this formula breaks into small solid pieces that can be rinsed out of porous materials. In addition to concrete, it also works on stucco, fiberglass, brick, metal, and vinyl. It also produces low VOCs and uses no harsh chemicals. Motsenbocker’s comes in a 22-ounce spray bottle.

FAQs About Paint Stripper

If you have questions about how to use paint stripper or dispose of it when you’re done, then read on for answers to these and other commonly asked questions about these products.

Q. Will paint stripper ruin my clothes?

Paint stripper will not ruin clothes. In fact, some paint strippers can be used to remove paint from clothing.

Q. Does paint stripper expire?

While paint stripper does not have an expiration date, it’s a good idea to keep it tightly sealed when not in use to prevent contaminants from getting into the container.

Q. What removes paint fast?

Sunnyside’s Sunnyside Corporation 65664 Hi-Speed Ready-Strip  is some of the fastest-acting paint stripper on the market, removing paint in as little as 30 minutes.

Q. How do I dispose of paint stripper?

Don’t throw paint stripper in your regular trash can. Due to the chemicals used in paint strippers, most municipalities require paint strippers to be disposed of at a hazardous collection facility.

Final Thoughts

A good paint stripper is one of the easiest ways to remove paint and varnish to prep an old piece of furniture or other material for refinishing or painting. When shopping for a paint stripper, it’s important to pay attention to what types of coatings it will remove as well as its compatibility with metal, wood, plastic, and other types of materials.

Also, keep in mind what active ingredients the stripper uses to remove paint. Whenever possible, choose a green product that doesn’t use harsh chemicals such as methylene chloride or NMP, which are toxic to humans and harmful to the environment.